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Smashing Return : Lingman Is Playing Tennis Again After Recovering From Serious Illness

June 22, 1996|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Six months ago, David Lingman was playing the best tennis of his life. Ranked 16th nationally in the boys' 14 age division, Lingman was on the verge of vaulting into the top 10 after a breakthrough week at the Orange Bowl junior tournament in Miami.

Little did Lingman know his picture-of-health body was on the verge of breaking down so badly that he would become bedridden for nearly four months and that he would have to wait until today to play his next competitive singles match.

Lingman, a freshman at Woodbridge High, has gone from being one of the favorites to win this week's Southern California Junior Sectionals to simply being lucky enough to compete.

"We don't care about the results, we're just happy he's out there," said Lingman's mother, Belle.

Belle Lingman admits there were times in January and early February when she wondered if her son would ever walk again, much less play tennis. David Lingman wouldn't let himselfthink about not playing tennis again, but he was scared to death.

What was he scared of?

No one, including a slew of doctors, had the slightest idea for about six weeks.

Lingman's Odyssey began before Christmas when he came down with a bad case of the flu that forced him to withdraw from the consolation round of the Orange Bowl tournament. Lingman tried to go with the other tournament players to Disneyland, but he became so sick he had to leave the amusement park.

It took him a week to kick the flu. Once he did, he began working out with his coach, Syd Ball, at the Balboa Bay Racquet Club. Immediately, Lingman began feeling a twinge in his back while he served. When the pain worsened, he saw his family physician, who treated Lingman for a back strain and administered cortisone shots for about three weeks.

Though his pain was briefly numbed, Lingman's condition worsened.

"I couldn't stand up," he said. "I couldn't walk very well. I kind of crawled. I didn't really know what had happened. I was confused. I didn't understand why the doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. I wondered when it would end."

Belle Lingman wondered the same thing.

"David was hunched over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame," she said. "He could only scoot and he couldn't sit or sleep, so obviously he couldn't go to school."

X-rays were taken on Lingman's back for a possible hairline fracture, but tests were negative. Meanwhile, acupuncture and surgery were being discussed as possible solutions to ending Lingman's pain.

Finally, nearly two months after Lingman contracted the flu, orthopedic surgeon Ted Tanzer began to suspect a bacterial infection in Lingman's bones. He referred Lingman to Dr. Mitchell Cohen, an orthopedic spinal surgeon, who agreed with Tanzer's diagnosis--osteomyelitis, an infection of the bones.

When tests came back positive for an infection, Belle Lingman rejoiced.

"All I could think was, 'We're on our way back now,' " Belle Lingman said. "It was such a relief to finally know what we were dealing with. We had fears that it might be something more deadly."

Cohen and Tanzer believe Lingman became infected during the time he had the flu, when his immune system was weakened.

"It was an upper respiratory infection that got into his blood stream and settled down into his disk," Cohen said. "In kids, there's a huge blood supply to the disk. Because he was already sick, the body didn't clean out the infection."

Cohen said Lingman's infection is extremely rare.

"Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it's a back strain," he said. "I only see this kind of thing once a year."

*

Once Lingman was diagnosed in early February, he was admitted to the hospital and put in a back brace. Cohen decided to treat the infection with antibiotics that were administered intravenously.

"It was my belief that antibiotics would work in this case," he said. "It turns out I was right. Who knows what someone else might have done? They could have easily gone in there and cleaned out the infection through surgery and that could have been disastrous."

After five days, Lingman was released and left in the hands of his mother, who was given the task of cleaning needles, keeping a fresh supply of antibiotics flowing to her son's blood stream and giving emotional support.

"I have to tell you there were a couple minor emergencies with those IVs," Belle Lingman said.

For nearly two months, Lingman was confined to his bed. His spirits were raised by visits from high school tennis teammates he had never played with, competitors in junior tournaments and his two private coaches, Ball and Ross Case.

"We're grateful to the tennis community for their support," Belle Lingman said. "We had articles faxed to us, people sent care packages, flowers, you name it. It speaks well for the tennis community and their ability to come together."

While on his back, Lingman began counting the days until he could return to the court.

"It was hard missing all that time," he said. "I was playing so well before. I knew I'd never get that time back."

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